Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Has Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine outrun the resources he’s committed to it? That’s the view of retired US Army Major General Mike Repass, who has an informed vantage point on the conflict, having worked in the Ukrainian security sector since 2016. The former commander of the US Special Operations Command in Europe, Repass provides education and advisory support to the Ukrainian military on a US government contract.
In discussions Thursday and Friday, I spoke to Repass about why new leadership and the improved training of the Ukrainian military has markedly improved its performance in recent years, the kind of anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons the Ukrainians hope that the US and its NATO allies will supply them with and what he sees happening next as the war in Ukraine grinds on. He predicts a campaign by the Russians that could turn the cities of Ukraine into rubble, creating a refugee crisis that overwhelms bordering nations, and destabilizes Central and Eastern Europe.
But Repass believes that while the Russians may be able to overcome Ukraine’s stiff defense, they will not be able to hold onto the country because Putin doesn’t have sufficient forces in theater to occupy large swaths of Ukraine indefinitely. In short, Putin has bitten off more than he can chew.
Disclosure: Repass is on the advisory council of the Global Special Operations Foundation, where I am the chairman of the board. Our conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Repass: The bottom line is the Ukrainian military forces have acquitted themselves exceptionally well thus far in the war. Russia will have a very difficult time subduing them because they are willing to fight until it becomes seemingly “futile,” or they no longer have the resources to do so.
The Ukrainians have been overmatched by Russian technology and outmanned and outgunned – by Russian tanks, artillery, precision long range strike missiles, armored personnel carriers – but the terrain favors the defenders, especially in the north and east of Ukraine, although less so in the south.
I think time and mass are on the Russian side, and they’re going to be able to either create conditions for peace suitable to Putin’s liking, or they will outright destroy the cities of Ukraine and the Ukrainian military with it, which to me still leaves a resistance scenario for the Ukrainians. So, there are multiple plausible futures.
Bergen: Why are the Ukrainians fighting better than many had expected?
Repass: I’m not surprised at how well the Ukraine army is fighting. I am surprised at the lethargy of the Russian assault; it seems to be slow and plodding up north. In the east, they’re getting their butts handed to them. In the south, they seem to be making steady progress.
Putin expected the Ukrainians to capitulate like they did in 2014 when he took Crimea, but overall, NATO and the US have done a magnificent job in training the Ukrainian military and reforming it and building it into a viable national defense force since 2014. The difference between then and now is the leadership of Ukraine is set on unifying with the West, politically, militarily, and economically.
On the military side, President Zelensky had inherited an old cadre of guys that he has replaced. The military leadership he brought in last year are all younger general officers, and they served together in the Donbas region in combat against the Russians. The leadership he has on the military side is much more engaged and much more influential.
Zelensky also brought in a new minister of defense. The previous minister was not up to the task for several reasons, so he brought in Oleksiy Reznikov, and he’s been outstanding.
So, the new leadership has really picked up the pace of reforms they were on. Given another year or two, those guys would have been in a different place altogether, looking much more like a NATO country’s armed forces.
I’ve visited 100, 150, 200 tactical units in various places – in Afghanistan and Iraq, where I served two combat tours – and I know instantly when I walk into a tactical unit environment, what the dynamic is there. When I visited a Ukrainian Special Forces unit in September, I sensed that immediately these guys were well-trained; they looked like our guys. They had the same mannerisms. They had the same planning processes.
Bergen: I thought Putin’s attack on Ukraine would be like the US military seizing Baghdad in 2003 and that the Russians would decapitate the Ukrainian regime quickly.
Repass: I think that’s what the world expected. So, strategically, the NATO mindset was, “Hey, we’re not going to get involved because by the time we commit to this thing, we get cranked up and get engaged, the damn thing is going to be over. So we’re not going to risk the political capital with another nuclear power to do this.” Yet now, we have another geostrategic reality in that the Ukrainian defense is pretty doggone viable. I think Ukrainians are in the vanguard of protecting the liberal democracies of Europe.
Bergen: For the Ukrainians, what weapons are needed now from NATO and the US? Or is it at the point where it’s too late to get weapons in because of logistical issues?
Repass: No, it’s not too late. Every Ukrainian tactical commander is asking for air defense and anti-tank weapons. They want air defense weaponry like Stingers or SA-7s, and they want anti-tank weapons. They know where the enemy is. They know how to get to him, but they don’t have the means in the field.
There’s congestion in the NATO weapons delivery pipeline because the spigot was only turned on days ago, and they haven’t reached the Ukrainian tactical units yet.
I’m not speaking for NATO in any way, shape, or form when I say what I’m about to say, but one of the things is that they must have a common communication system. Right now, there are dissimilar and cumbersome communications between the Ukrainian commands and the nations that are providing support.
The second thing is because it isn’t a NATO operation, NATO hasn’t responded in a formalized way to stand up movement coordination centers and logistic control centers. So there’s a lot of improvisation going on with the coalition of the willing and able, putting together the transportation networks and the logistics networks. There’s a lot of work that can be done among and between the individual NATO member states to shore up efficiency and effectiveness and speed up the delivery of the lethal weaponry.
Bergen: Why is a 40-mile Russian convoy on the road trying to take Kyiv? It seems a strange approach.
Repass: Yes. Everybody is scratching their head about that. There are a couple things that I think feed into this. So, it’s 40 miles long now, but the convoy started out in segments. And those segments were somewhere between 50 and a couple hundred vehicles at a time. The idea was for these segments to deploy, but then the congestion started happening due to combat fatalities and breakdowns.
Also, if the vehicles and tanks get off that road, then they’re in a quagmire. There’s mud in the region that persists for basically the springtime, running from now for another six weeks or so.
So, cross-country mobility is exceedingly inhibited in the northern part of the country. The southern part of the country, you don’t have that problem. So you don’t see these massive convoys down south. You only see it up north where getting off the road is a problem.
Bergen: Why was this so poorly planned, or was it just that it was likely to not go well because of the weather circumstances we’re seeing?
Repass: We assume the Russians are capable of efficient planning, but they’re also capable of bad planning. They haven’t done this level of planning and execution in any of their training exercises. So, they’re somewhat unfamiliar with the large maneuver and sustainment aspects of what they’re attempting to do.
Bergen: What’s next?
Repass: A Russian campaign to turn the cities into rubble, creating a refugee crisis, overwhelming the borders and the border nations, and destabilizing Central and Eastern Europe.
They’re going to target government infrastructure and then means of command and control – public communications, internet, radio towers, cell phone towers – anything they can do to disrupt communications, so they separate the people from the government.
With this campaign, they want to create mass shock and panic in the society to create complex challenges for the government and degrade the will of the people. Already about a million refugees have crossed the borders out of a population of around 41 million. That’s going to go up significantly. You’re going to have several million people streaming to the west.
Belarus and Russia will likely declare martial law, and they’ll be able to clamp down on all manner of public discourse, media, internet, and cut down any potential for resistance or coup attempts internal to their countries.
They likely will combine forces, move to seal off the western border of Ukraine, first, to create a greater humanitarian disaster in Ukraine; and second, to cut off any resupply coming in from the West.
I think at that point in time, the Ukraine military, will continue to fight primarily west of the Dnieper River. In other places, particularly in the Ukrainian urban centers, you’re going to have an insurgency. A resistance will rise up either pre-planned or organically, and they will inflict pain and destruction on the Russians to the extent that they can.
This is where the term “indigestible” comes into play. The Russians may be able to consume Ukraine, but they cannot digest it. It will be too painful to hold onto it, and eventually they will have to spit it back out. In essence, the cost of occupation is too great compared to the returns.
The Russians may eventually control the urban areas, but there are vast areas between them – 50 kilometers, 80 kilometers apart – where there’s nothing. There are many small villages and small towns that are not controlled by Russians.
The devastation is going to horrify Europe and North America. The non-intervention argument will eventually be overridden by the human suffering problem. And then, potentially a coalition of the willing might impose something along the lines of a no-fly zone or safe havens for refugees and citizens of the major metropolitan areas.
Bergen: So those safe havens could look a little like the kind of safe haven that the US established in Kurdistan in Iraq in 1991?
Repass: Yes, something like that, in western Ukraine.
Bergen: What is the minimum that Putin wants to achieve in Ukraine?
Repass: The one critical thing that Putin must have is control of the North Crimea Canal.
Bergen: Why is that?
Repass: Because when he invaded Crimea and Donbas in 2014, the Ukrainians shut off the North Crimea Canal source at the Dnieper River. So, it dried up, and they’ve been relying on groundwater in Crimea since, and then the groundwater has all dried up. So, Putin has had no fresh water in Crimea until now.
The Russians captured the North Crimea Canal and fresh water just showed up in Crimea in the last day or so. So that’s the one thing he had to have.
What he also wanted to have is a land bridge from Donbas over to Crimea and to secure that land route and the North Crimea Canal source at the Dnieper River. He would essentially have control of all territory east of the Dnieper River, going up to Kyiv and then arcing north and eastward to Donbas. If Putin seizes enough land east of the Dnieper River, then he’s willing to bargain everything else away.
But even with the geographic territory that I just described, Putin’s circa 175,000 troops which are presently deployed in and around Ukraine are not enough to maintain control of that geography.
Bergen: How much manpower would Putin need to control the territory?
Repass: Difficult to say.
The Russians must have enough people to coerce the 41 million people in Ukraine to cooperate with the Russian government. It took a large part of the German Army’s Eastern Front to subdue the Ukrainians so they could pursue the campaign into southern Russia during World War II.
So, I don’t see how Putin’s going to be able to pull that off.
I think the Western liberal democracies have both a moral obligation and a political imperative to support a nation fighting for its independence and the pursuit of a liberal political order in the Western tradition. If not here, where will we take a stand against autocratic and revisionist forces? What should Georgia and Azerbaijan conclude from our timidity in the face of evil? Surely Taiwan is next.
I believe Russia’s assault on Ukraine is the leading edge of militarily strong states preying upon weaker ones. Few of us thought we would be here, but so it is. What are we going to do now?
History has been unkind to nations when they tolerate or appease such aggression. The concepts of territorial integrity and democracy cannot end at NATO’s borders. Is the rest of the world to be left to the wolves while there is but one island of security? Russia’s attack on Ukraine cannot succeed if we hope to build and sustain the benefits of democracy beyond NATO’s borders.